A Flight Engineer for Air Force One

A crew member on Air Force One for almost 20 years, Joe Chappell has seen it all.

Courtesy Joe Chappell

As a crew member on Air Force One from 1961 to 1980, Joe Chappell ensured the flight safety of U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Christopher Saccoccia interviewed Chappell last November.

Air & Space: What does a flight engineer do?

Chappell: I’m sure you’ve seen movies where there is a pilot, a co-pilot, and a flight engineer. Before we moved to jets and computers, a flight engineer was a guy who worked his ass off. I was always on transports, and we were the guys who kept everything running. When we arrived someplace, we were also responsible for the airplane being serviced, inspected, and being ready for the next departure. Those of us at National Airport [in Washington, D.C.] were licensed airplane and engine mechanics as well as being licensed flight engineers. Back in the old days, we flew with operators, navigators, flight engineers, pilots, but as things moved, we started eliminating operators and navigators. On modern airplanes, many of the engineer positions have been eliminated. The present Air Force One still carries the flight engineers, but most of [the work] has been computerized.

A & S: A recent TV presentation discussed the secrecy surrounding George Bush’s 2003 mission to visit the troops in Iraq for Thanksgiving. Have you had similar experiences?

Chappell: Many. Some we have made public, some not. When Nixon was president, Henry Kissinger met 17 times in France with the North Vietnamese, negotiating the cease-fire and peace agreement. We always needed a cover story: Kissinger was known as a ladies’ man. He would be seen at a social event with a cocktail Friday evening and he was thought to be shackin’ up with someone over the weekend, but he would really be with the North Vietnamese. And he had twice met with the Chinese secretly, behind the Iron Curtain, negotiating a presidential visit to open relations with the Chinese. No one knew anything about that until Nixon went to China.

A & S: Which President did you connect with the most?

Chappell: Johnson and I got along really well for some reason. He had many modifications he wanted done on the airplane and I would get them done. He tried to do a good job—he worked hard, he liked to run everything, wanted to get involved in small details. That was just his nature.

A & S: Tell me about November 22, 1963, in Dallas.

Chappell: The day of President Kennedy’s assassination. It was a warm day, bands were playing, and the president and first lady left in their open car. Doug Moody and I were standing out in front of number-two engine when Colonel Swiener runs out of the steps and hollers, “Hey Joe, we got to get ready to go!” We both thought there must be some sort of international issue—Vietnam was pretty hot. After I ordered a fuel truck, Swiener said, “Did I tell you the president has been shot?” He was picking it up from listening to the Secret Service.

A & S: Most Americans remember the Walter Cronkite broadcast. Were you able to see it?

Chappell: I saw the reaction of my fellow crew members. I had traveled with them for a long time, and I thought, Gee, if these guys are showing emotion, this has got to be bad. I heard about the assassination after Cronkite had made the broadcast.

A & S: You were aboard Air Force One when Lyndon Johnson was sworn in?

Chappell: Yes, when he came into the cockpit, he had told police not to delay Judge Hughes. I went outside and told a policeman I was waiting for Hughes. He said, “This is the judge now.” I saw a big black Buick coming up. The guy driving was wearing a Texas hat and a nice suit. I said, “Judge, will you come with me?” He said, “Just a minute.” I had assumed he was the judge, but he was the driver—the judge was in the back seat. I escorted Judge Sarah Hughes as she boarded the airplane. It was a very brief ceremony. I’m sure you’ve seen the picture; I was standing right there. [In that photo, often called the most famous ever taken aboard Air Force One, Chappell is behind Hughes, next to the photographer, and thus not visible.]

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